Published: 06:00, 15 April 2021
| Updated: 12:15, 26 May 2021
A father battling cancer is finally due to fly home to his family after receiving treatment having raised £100,000 to fund an operation not available in the UK.
Mark Towens, from Gravesend, was diagnosed with skin cancer and tumours spread to his brain and told last summer he had just six months to live.
An incredible fundraising campaign for Mark's last chance was set up and reached the target which would pay for the treatment in either the USA or Israel.
Most of his friends and colleagues at the Port of London Authority, where he works as a harbour master managing river traffic through central London, had no idea about his battles with skin cancer which flared up five years ago after a 12-year spell in remission.
It's not been an easy road for Mark and his family, who needed to raise the money to pay for the TIL (tumour infiltrating lymphocytes) therapy to harvest cancer-beating cells and insert them back into his body.
But the impact of the pandemic bringing in more lockdowns, restricting travel and quarantine issues and another setback in his own health, when he was told more tumours had been found in his brain, meant the plan and possibility of treatment had been put in jeopardy.
The dad-of-two and his wife Claire, who has been by his side throughout, are now set to fly home this week to be reunited with their family after 34 trillion cancer-busting cells were put transferred into Mark's body.
Here, in his own words, Mark speaks about his journey and determination to fight on:
In September I had completed scans showed chemotherapy I had being taking as a Hail Mary in June had been working. This was quite a surprise as the likelihood of getting any response was only around 5% and we were seeing significant shrinking of my tumours. Fortunately this had given me the stability I needed to begin undertaking treatment in Israel.
I flew out to Israel on my own at the end of September and had been told to expect to be in Israel for two to three months to complete the treatment process.
Due to restrictions entering Israel, I could only have one person attend with me, but that was difficult to achieve over such a long time, so we had a plan that different family members would fly out to cover the critical weeks of the treatment.
I arrived in Israel and met with the consultants. Their recommendation was to continue with the chemotherapy for now as it had been very effective up to that point, but warned it was likely to stop working although that could be in a month or a year – it was hard to say.
They suggested I completed what is known as TIL harvesting in preparation for the TIL therapy.
This was the process of removing a tumour to extract my T-Cells so that the treatment could be developed in a lab and frozen for when I needed them. We agreed on this plan and I had the surgery in Israel.
Unfortunately Israel was in its second lockdown at the time so they deemed the surgery insufficient to allow a family member to fly over to Israel and I flew home after two weeks.
The chemotherapy continued to work well and on the six month anniversary of being told I had six months to live – the weekend before Christmas – I completed a 75-mile bike ride with family members that I christened the ‘Not Dead Yet Ride’.
I had further scans in January that sadly showed two new brain tumours from the original skin cancer. This was the worst possible news, as not only had the chemo failed, but with new brain tumours I was ineligible to complete the treatment in Israel.
My team at the Royal Marsden were fantastic and agreed to give me another round of radiotherapy to the brain to try to stabilise me so that I could return to Israel to complete the treatment. During this process I was in touch with the consultants in Israel and they agreed with the Marsden’s plan and I had the radiotherapy at the end of January.
I needed to wait for four weeks to see if the treatment had worked and ensure no new brain tumours presented in the interim period. If the results were good, we would fly to Israel as they wanted to start treatment as quickly as possible.
The treatment would take about six to eight weeks but we had to factor in isolation in Israel due to Covid restrictions. After our previous experience we decided it was best that my wife fly out to Israel with me and stay for the duration of the treatment.
Our children would be looked after by my parents who lived nearby, with support from our family and our dog would go to my wife’s parents. We kept our children’s schools informed and they have continued to be very supportive.
We had been keeping a watch on the situation in Israel who, at that time, were in the middle of their third lockdown despite their fantastic vaccination rate.
This was primarily a result of the imported British variant of Covid causing rapid spread through the population. On February 1 the bad news kept mounting and Israel announced they were closing their land borders and international airport.
This was initially for a week but could be extended longer. We had time but was conscious that if my brain scan was stable at the end of February, we needed to move quickly as the stability may not last very long.
We began to look for alternatives to travel to Israel, including boarding a commercial cargo ship from Egypt and a private jet from nearby Jordan.
The Israeli government extended the airport closures again and then it became clear the airport would not open in time for us to travel as we had planned.
We discovered the Israeli government had agreed to put on a number of repatriation flights from the US and Europe to bring the more than 10,000 Israelis trapped abroad back home.
Those returning to the country would need to isolate in special government hotels. However in order to secure one of these flights we had to obtain permission from a special Israeli government committee that was overseeing the repatriation flights.
We nervously waited for a week to hear if we would be accepted to travel and finally received our permission in mid February.
The European flights were scheduled to depart from Frankfurt Airport, but we were unable to book the flights as connecting flights so had to ship our suitcases to Israel in advance through fear we would be caught in Germany’s Covid quarantine laws when we entered the Airport and be forced to isolate in Germany for 10 days.
We arrived at Frankfurt airport and made our way to the gate for the Israeli flight, but as we were non-Israeli passport holders were subjected to substantial security checks to the point that we only obtained our boarding pass five minutes before the flight was due to depart.
We arrived at Tel Aviv airport and had arranged to stay at the hotel within the Sheba Hospital facility.
But when we arrived at the Tel Aviv airport security, despite having all the necessary documents, we were told we would have to go to a government sponsored hotel.
This was a disaster for us as we had rebooked my scan in Israel, which I would be able to attend while in isolation, but only if I stayed within the hospital complex.
If we went to a government hotel we would miss my scan and it would be another week before my scan could be completed with the risk of new tumours developing that would rule me out of further treatment.
After standing our ground with the Israeli military and police at the airport, the matter was eventually resolved between the medical director at the hospital and the head of security at the airport and we were transferred to the hospital.
We were in isolation for 10 days and I was allowed out to attend my scan exactly four weeks after my radiotherapy.
Just as we came out of isolation, we met with the consultant and were anxiously awaiting the results of an MRI.
The consultant had a huge grin on his face and told us the scans were good and we could proceed with treatment. The relief after all we had been through was incredible and we celebrated in our hotel room with a takeaway and a beer.
The following 10 days were a barrage of tests, predominantly of my heart and lungs to ensure I was well enough to withstand the rigours of the treatment protocol, which I successfully passed.
I was admitted into hospital and had chemotherapy to deplete my bone marrow and immune system ready to receive my new cells, which was quite a day for us.
It was a sense of joy and excitement that after all that we have been through over eight months, from fundraising to travelling to and from Israel in these difficult times that we have finally made it.
I had a mixed feeling of trepidation knowing the treatment process is going to be difficult but I have a determination to get through it no matter what it throws at me.
From a family perspective our children miss us and we miss them, but we catch up with them as often as possible by FaceTime and we know they are being well looked after.
I think in many ways it is more difficult for our family at home as they aren’t able to visit or see us and they know that it is just my wife and I out here going through a difficult process as best as we can.
I completed the treatment and was discharged from hospital last Tuesday (April 6) after a two week stay.
I received my cells two-and-a-half weeks ago and was fortunate they had been growing really well and in the end I received 34 trillion new immune cells.
It was a challenging treatment process to go through, but my recovery is going well and I am slowly improving.
At the end of treatment I needed a frame to support me with walking, but now I am walking quite well again although only short distances at the moment.
We know that this just wouldn’t have been possible without all of the support we have had from our family, our employer who has given us the time and space to come to Israel and the huge number of supporters who donated on the GoFundMe Page that enabled us to afford this treatment.
All we can do now is hope it is enough to beat this cancer once and for all.